The NHL's annual Winter Classic is a highlight for lots of fans — not only for the outdoor hockey but for the throwback jerseys, too. And when the Toronto Maple Leafs meet the Detroit Red Wings in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on New Year’s Day for the 2014 Winter Classic, both teams will hit the ice is specially-designed throwback jerseys that dive deep into their histories.
Detroit’s' sweaters feature striping and word marks taken from the 1920s, when they were the Detroit Cougars, while the crest comes from the late 1930s. The Leafs’ uniforms, meanwhile, draw on four different eras — the color and striping are from the 1930s, the crest is inspired by the Leafs' 1927 original, the neckline was used in the 1960s, and the stitching is a tribute to the team's mid-1950s jerseys.
Sports Illustrated Kids wondered how these jerseys were designed, so we spoke with Dominique Fillion, the Design Director in Reebok’s Sports License Division. Fillion has been with Reebok since 2005, and he was responsible for overseeing the creation of the Winter Classic jerseys — as well as many other everyday uniforms worn in the NHL. He told SI Kids what went into the designs of these uniforms, how he and his team of designers put the looks together, and why so many Winter Classic jerseys — even though they look old — are really brand new creations.
When it comes to designing NHL jerseys, what’s the process like from beginning to end?
Well, especially on the Winter Classic, it’s unique because we always work on a very condensed timeline. The 2014 jerseys in particular, we were able to get an earlier heads up that the Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs were going to be in the Winter Classic. This allowed us to do a trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, and we went in there with four designers and really did a deep dive into the history of both clubs and work with the [Hall] to ask questions or work with them to get as much information as we could and as much detail as we could on each of the clubs — the clubs’ history, identity, jersey, the way they were built, the colors they wore back in the day, and variations in crest and logos they had on their jerseys.
Are there any specific eras of a jersey you go to first when you’re looking at historical elements?
Yeah, there are key elements. There’s certainly iconic striping that defines the uniform’s design and unique look. Second to that would certainly be the crest and the primary logo that we’ll have on that jersey. It’s such an amazing event and such a great opportunity for the team to showcase a unique mark, something that is different and yet speaks to the club’s heritage. Those are key components that are always part of the initial conversations.
Some of these jerseys have design elements that are so minute from the standpoint of historical context or reference points that unless you’re really a superfan of a team or really knew the history you could miss them. For example, the stitching on the the Maple Leafs jersey for this Winter Classic is from the 1950s, I think?
Correct, yeah. Yeah these are small elements that we certainly try to integrate as much as we can into the jersey so it really personalizes the jersey and the details to its franchise. And we always look at eras where the team has been successful or won the Stanley Cup or had great years or key players and there’s some great stories that can be told around championships or Stanley Cup wins, that’s always something that resonates with the fans. Or sometimes it’s something that’s unique. The way the Maple Leafs laced up their necklines in the ‘60s, it was kind of a reverse kind of a lace up. Or the way the numbering system was designed for the Detroit Red Wings in the 1980s, this very scripted type of numbering system that only appeared for a few years in their history but that was very unique to them.
When you work with older teams like the Red Wings and Maple Leafs, do they tend to look way, way back in their history, or do they say, “We like this jersey we had in the ‘70s or the ‘80s?”
Everything starts with the research. From our side, it’s funny, because a lot of times we’ll meet with those teams, we help them really carve out or dig out a lot of the history they have because some teams are better than others at archiving their own history. But doing this research and these deep dives, every time we’ve done a Winter Classic jersey, they’re things the team didn’t necessarily have as either visual or imagery or even history they’re happy to hear about or it’s additional content they’re learning from. So, working with all these teams since 2008, the expectation is almost for us to really showcase and take them through their timeline, take them through their history, and the expectation from the league and from the team is almost they want to hear the story, they want to hear how these uniforms are coming to life and what the inspiration source is that creates the design.
Have any of these Winter Classic jerseys been one-to-one replications of a sweater that was worn in the past?
Not truly, because even though we’re speaking about heritage and certainly designs inspired by old throwback jerseys, those jerseys are still built on our Reebok Edge template, utilizing the newest material. So we’ve got to work with the template of the jersey and the materials that we have and the way the jerseys are built now versus how they were built in the ‘40s, ‘50, ‘60s, all the way up to the ‘80s or ‘90s even. So there has to be slight modifications to be able to achieve the standard of the uniform the players wear currently on ice.
Are there uniform designs that we’re connecting directly back to specific eras or specific jerseys? Yes. Sometimes what we’ll do is take a very close look at a specific jersey and a specific era, like what what we did in 2008 with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres, or even in 2009 with the Blackhawks. That was a uniform design that was taken from a specific era, and the same thing for the Capitals jersey in 2011, that was something that came from the inaugural season. But sometimes, like in 2010 with the Bruins or 2011 with Pittsburgh and 2012 with the New York Rangers, what we did was those fusion type of uniforms. So they’re actually new designs, but all inspired by components and elements from their heritage,
Do you have an all-time favorite hockey jersey?
Yeah, I’ve got a few. (laughs) The Chicago Blackhawks has certainly been one of the jerseys I always gravitated towards growing up. It was something that always stood out to me. I grew up in Montreal, so I certainly have a very soft spot for the Montreal Canadiens jersey, as well. It’s such a classic staple in the hockey world. From the more modern standpoint, I think the Winnipeg Jets is a great jersey, as well. I think the Jets, Nashville, and Dallas have been some really fresh looks at the hockey jersey and the NHL because a lot of times jerseys in the NHL, there’s a lot of traditionalists in the sport, but I think these identites are really starting to carve out the direction where the NHL will be heading towards in the future.
Want more Winter Classic action? Check out this outdoor hockey slideshow to get ready for this season's games!
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Photos: (top) Don Penny, (2008 Winter Classic, Penguins/Sabres) Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images, (2009 Winter Classic, Blackhawks) Jamie Squire/Getty Images, (2011 Winter Classic, Capitals) David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated